Extraordinary music-making from the 2019 Adam Troubadours

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:
2019 Adam Troubadours

Claudia Tarrant-Matthews (leader), Sophia Tarrant-Matthews, violins,
Grant Baker, viola / Olivia Wilding, ‘cello

HAYDN – String Quartet in C Major Op.76, No.3 “Emperor”
GARETH FARR – Te Tai-o-Rehua (The Tasman Sea) for String Quartet (2013)
DVORAK – String Quartet in G Major Op.106

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 17th July, 2019

Behold, the 2019 Adam Troubadours! – a name that suggested something adventuresome and “here-and-now”, performers whose defining characteristics would give their music-making real distinction – and so it proved, in a concert for Chamber Music Hutt Valley that disarmed one’s listening by the act of its performers simply surpassing themselves as the evening ran its course. The above are young string musicians selected from those attending Adam Summer Schools for Chamber Music, and their coming-together led to this, a tour sponsored by Chamber Music New Zealand. All were, it seems, mentored by members of the New Zealand String Quartet, who would, I think, be extremely proud of these youngsters and what they have proved capable of doing. In fact a system which fosters performers of this quality, indicates to my mind that whatever is happening in the upper echelons of music education at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music is working splendidly!

One might say this programme was a classic kind of “string quartet concert” format – and here, thanks to a happy combination of performers and repertoire, the results were, for this listener, truly memorable. The Haydn Emperor Quartet which began the evening’s music couldn’t be described as an innovative choice (time enough for such things later!), but it demonstrated that these musicians knew what they were on about, rendering as whole-hearted a performance as I’ve ever heard.

From the beginning, the group’s sound made a bright, eager impression, each player’s line beautifully “centred”, with the various concerted passages a delight. The group strongly characterised each section, contrasting the busy-ness of the interactive development sequences with the earthier, more pesante elements, and conveying such an intensity of involvement with every phrase. The well-known second movement’s hymn-tune-cum-anthem got a rapt, heartfelt reading, with sensitive detailing woven into securely-wrought lines. By way of contrast, the sprightly Menuetto sang its first few measures and then quirkily danced the answering phrases with great gusto, the Trio surprising with a sombre minor-then-major manner, so “inward” compared with the rumbustions of the Menuetto – and such delicate pianissimi! As for the finale, the Adam Troubadours pulled no punches, the opening strident and challenging, single lines flung across the spectrum of interaction like grappling hooks, the musical argument remaining feisty and combatative amongst the players even when in accord at the work’s exciting finish!

Gareth Farr’s work for string quartet Te Tai-o-Rehua (The Tasman Sea) has been reviewed three times before by Middle C, (all different reviewers), having secured a number of performances after its commission by the Australian ensemble the Goldner Quartet  (in conjunction with CMNZ) in 2013.  Enthusiastically acclaimed on each occasion both work- and performance-wise, it gave me enormous fun simply comparing the three sets of previous impressions! – and I couldn’t help forming the opinion that Gareth Farr had here created something of an “Antipodean” classic (I’m using the adjective in a “generic” rather than strictly “literal” sense, of course). But I loved the composer’s candour in writing, in a note accompanying the music, “I intended to write a happy and joyous piece, because that’s the way I feel about my relationship with Australia and New Zealand……the music, however, came out dark, mysterious and edgy” – a case, perhaps, of more “at work” in the creative process, perhaps than meets the eye……(incidentally, Farr contributed another equally apposite comment regarding this piece, one which playfully “begs the question” of its provenance – “a really interesting dinner party for four people”…..)

Beginning the work were a number of terse figurations, initiated by the second violin and carried on by the viola, whether a kind of primitive chanting, or the undulating movement of water, remaining open to conjecture – eerie harmonic-like notes and disembodied tremolandi from the first violin and cello respectively, helped to evoke the ‘mysterious wild”, impulses which gathered focus and girth, reached a point of near-anguish, then broke off and began  (the viola leading the way) an edgy, angular “ritual of rhythm” the voices fugal-like but punctuated with sforzando-like pizzicati from the  cello – great, compulsive writing, here realised by the players with palpable physical involvement! Throughout, Farr evoked an almost Sibelius-like ambience which put me repeatedly in mind of the latter’s incidental music for “The Tempest”, the oceanic swells, the multifarious surface texturings, and the strange, half-lit ambiences of ships and seafarers “caught up” in it all…..

Having demonstrated his acute sense of detailing, leaving no depth unfathomed, no surge unsounded and no ripple unremarked on, Farr then plunged his instruments into a frenzy of concerted movement, enough to set the pulses racing and convey an entirely characteristic “exhilaration of physicality” (while adroitly avoiding the excesses of his somewhat fulsome “Great Sea Gongs”!). After gathering itself, the music rebuilt the intensities, firstly in long-breathed arched chordings and then with Stravinskian “Sacrificial Dance”-like passages (skin and hair flying everywhere!), building to a similar point of climactic excitement! The young  players completed their task by flinging the final phrase at us with a stunning sense of elemental closure that left nothing in its wake but a sense of an incredible listening and interpretative journey completed.

After the interval we were treated to an equally overwhelming performance of one of Antonin Dvořák’s finest chamber words, his Op.106 String Quartet in G Major. This turned out to be a work that demonstrated the composer’s entry into a somewhat more complex and rarified world of creative expression, a  more adventurous style of writing, using fragments of motifs instead of extended themes and with restless, volatile results. The upshot was exhilarating, if disconcerting – a “ride” through a profuse treasure-grove of  brief gestures and fragmented motives, a style Dvořák would presumably have developed further had he been granted more time on this earth.

Right from the work’s beginning we heard sounds whose harmonic explorations maintained a constancy of contrast.  The delicacy of the opening figurations, alternating with tumbling warmth, soon became the movement’s recurring pattern, presenting and developing a panoply of themes and gestures – what seemed like two “theme-groups”, the first one  seemingly more fragmentary than a second, more lyrical one. The harmonic explorations and developments were like an array of “sprung” possibilities, dazed by their own activation, and leaving us dazed in turn! I was simply blown away by the technical and musical mastery with which these young players fitted all of these detailings into a complex but still richly coherent argument – even then it all flashed past with the surest and fleetest of individual and ensembled touches!

The slow movement seemed to exist on two simultaneous planes of expression, in a minor key to begin with and then contrasting the mood with its major-key equivalent – all so rich and heartwarming. Dvořák again seemed to be opening vein after vein of possibility, the music gliding with sublime surety towards radiance, before turning on its heels and striding darkly down a parallel causeway of contrasted feeling! Not every note was sounded with consummate ease or perfect intonation by the players, but that’s because they were all striving to realise the breadth and depth of this music’s emotional reach. The music gave me a feeling not unlike a sensation of being trapped in a dream and turning the details over and over in trying to figure out how many ways it could be differently expressed and understood –  at the very end the players’ tones were so rapt, themselves seemingly entranced with it all.

The scherzo was a vigorous dance, here, both viola and cello extremely Beethoven-like in manner, trenchant and insistent, the mood more so than one usually expected from Dvořák. There was a lovely lyrical episode that one might have presumed was the trio – but the “real McCoy” came later, a lullabic, if elaborately-decorated song-episode, whose mood was constantly energised by fleet-fingered arpeggios and upwardly-soaring lines.

The finale teased our sensibilities with a tender, heart-warming introduction, before picking up its skirts and dancing away, the players alternating joy and abandonment with darker, more intense moments, the composer somehow maintaining a “lyrical” vein of feeling amidst figurations of some energy and agitation!  A peaceful, hymnlike interlude in the midst of the upheavals unreservedly captured our hearts, and an ensuing “dialogue” between recitatives and concerted replies held us in thrall even further…..then, via a string of reminiscing echoes, the players returned us to the main theme, whose energetic spirit took over the performance and danced us all, joyously and wildly, to its end. What a performance!

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